My current project, “Sensored: Quantified Self, Self-Tracking, and the Limits of Digital Transparency,” is an ethnographic study of (1) the Quantified Self community and (2) the developers of sensor-enabled devices in New York City, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Theorists writing about the abundance of data in contemporary life have largely coalesced around questions of privacy and agency, focusing on the feelings of impotence produced by large quantities of data that now let corporations effortlessly monitor and regulate people’s lives. Scholars point to real issues, but they overstate the efficacy of machines and discount other social dynamics that motivate the proliferation of data.
I am interested in moments of friction. As I evaluate how data discourse operates and builds, I situate my research at the intersection of the Quantified Self community and the wider technology industry. The Quantified Self is a Silicon Valley born user group for enthusiasts of digital self-tracking, forged in the legacy of Stewart Brand’s “network forums” by Wired magazine editors Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf. In arguing that data do not regulate or reveal absolutely, I use my experience with the group and with developers of self-tracking tools to examine the professional anxieties, industry imperatives, as well as the changing technical imaginaries that organize contemporary investments in data. Analysis that explores friction, creates new connections. By applying the anthropological lens to expose the nexus of social and expert relationships that affect how personal data are funneled and filtered into daily life, this research challenges accounts of data based purely on transparency, anxiety, and fear, and grapples with the discordant factors animating the data-driven life.